Anabasis is an Ancient Greek word describing a journey from the coast to the interior- now a series of visits to sites rooted in their locality. So far these have included sewage works, factories, small museums, and offices: all "off the map’, but central to the city. Accessing these spaces, not regularly visited involves individuals intimately connected to each site. The starting point for each tour is Somerset House and the final tour will be hosted from there.
This website will gather images, texts, and impressions.
In the centre of London, the stranded water gates of Somerset House and York House – marooned inland and estranged from the river traffic they once oversaw – are emblematic of the city’s asymmetric pace of change. Similarly, Blackfriars Bridge sits juxtaposed with the absurd, functionless stumps of its original, only half-demolished incarnation. The current bridge was partially severed in the last river reclamation; its final arch now spans land regained from the river, instead of the river itself. Rather than razing and reconstructing – effecting change in the vertical dimension – these architectonic incongruities signify a process of abutment or grafting: change in the horizontal dimension. The form of this change is that of the palimpsest rather than of the clean slate upon which one creates anew.
In the wake and shadow of infrastructural splitting and suturing, unusual ground-spaces have evolved. Beneath the Westway, for example, an urban paddock occupies the footprint of the elevated roundabout, taking a morphological cue from its circularity; ponies jump palettes and have shipping containers for stables. The normal rules of the city are upended: with the motorway’s vast concrete skin as a sky, the foundations below are occupied by leisure and the community. In a similar example, Crossrail creates huge foundational spaces adjoining the extant underground halls, now given over to the Museum of London. Having once been a street-level depot receiving animals for Smithfield Market, these areas are now underground.
The line beyond which we can no longer monetise or colonise the earth shifts constantly over time, though such a line always exists: there is a point where soil is just soil, inadmissible of manipulation by, or deployment to the ambitions of civilisation. Beyond this boundary is the unseen, absolutely distinct from what can be seen. The city is often described as a web of overlapping edges. Such ‘anxious landscapes’, as described by Antoine Picon – wherein our perception of space and distance is confused by ever-shifting reflections of light and clashing surfaces – find a corollary in the idea that the ground beneath is merely the city’s support. However, work undertaken below our feet is governed by a different set of rules from that taking place aboveground. The danger and brute materiality of the earth assert themselves. Unique hazards occupy the minds of those who labour under the pressure of forty metres of earth. The lack of connectivity – of mobile reception, natural light, open space – renders subterranean structures isolated from one another, entombed in the earth.
For the engineers of underground structures, whose labour is dominated by the interface of the architectural and the tectonic, the ground is an inert mass awaiting the thrust of Tunnel Boring Machines (TBMs) to carve voids through it.
While the relentless flux and stream of life takes place in the above-ground’s present tense, immune to capture, underground the past congeals into legible strata; static patterns amenable to examination. A cross-sectional graphic on display at the Museum of London assigns to each level in the ground a historical moment, collapsing geological hierarchies and temporalities onto those designed by human culture. Section 12 of the National Planning Policy Framework requires those constructing or renovating to demonstrate their awareness of the ‘heritage assets’ that might be affected by their activity. Consequently, archaeologists are now a regular feature of major construction sites. With developers demanding that the removal of heritage obstacles be rapid – so that retrieval of the past does not delay construction of the future – organizations such as MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) advertise first and foremost the speed and efficiency of their excavation teams. Inevitably, though, since the temporality and trajectory of archaeology are diametrically opposed to those of construction, fast is never fast enough. Thus, for the archaeologists whose presence on these sites is mandated by law, the ground is not inert but rather a rich, protective medium for the preservation of meaningful artefacts of peoples long buried.
There is a tension in the subterranean, in its resistance of the mechanisms that govern the city above. The soil is at once symbolically inert and rich in meaning, and we can interpret the “basement” of the city as both ripe for capitalisation and resistant to manipulation. Underground engineering creates vast, even sublime spaces, dominated by machines and processes on a superhuman scale, and the human workers, despite their adornment in fluorescent PPE, seem dwarfed to ants. The power of human capital and ambition are contrasted with the power and heft of the soil. A display board routinely found on site tots up the hours since the last ‘lost time incident’ (29), or RIDDOR (‘Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013’), reflecting the contemporary imperative for safety in the workplace – a relatively new idea – whilst reducing human operatives on-site to numerics of ‘lost time’. The humane concept of health and safety goes hand in hand with economic imperatives.
The orthogonal vectors of this activity (soil from the Crossrail sites is shifted laterally to create an artificial island at Wallasea; artefacts are extracted vertically) weave a complex ‘settling of accounts’, in which the soil is dug, moved, reconfigured according to human design. Building down into earth, as opposed to up into the sky, is by nature a displacement activity. Its part in the wider cycle of shift and waste has a lot to tell us about displacements on a larger scale, of wildlife and histories.
Turn and Forget
TBMs are curious phenomena; their physics of constant forward-oriented rotation would ideally see them in constant motion, so their tunnels don’t implode. In effect, these are nightmarish motion machines, incapable of turning back. Yet today, operations do have to draw to a halt with the unearthing of delicate domestic artefacts. A civil engineer, in discovering a terra incognita, an unaccounted-for shadow on a technical drawing, summons the archaeological team on site; they work perpendicular to the action, sieving, trowelling on a lateral axis, gently dusting off their fragmentary finds that will eventually ascend.
The TBMs leave a functional cylindrical tunnel in their wake, soon to be lined, clad, rigged with lights and cables, and finally populated by trains and the people within them. In a final volte-face, the machines themselves are rarely retrieved from the earth; instead they are programmed to drive absently off-course, where they remain, abandoned in their self-created cavities. This standard practice is called ‘turn and forget’, and brings the relentless machines finally to inertia, merging them with – or perhaps burying them in – the earth.
For engineers, the land is a brute mass devoid of meaning, in which remnants of human activity are buried and soon forgotten; for the archaeologists, it is the very stuff of human history, to be accessed slowly, with granular curiosity and care, and a kind of reverence. Perhaps ironically, when a successor of Crossrail is constructed many decades or centuries from now, it will likely be archaeologists who will unearth the turned-and-forgotten TBMs, and who will construct (and reconstruct) the meanings of the land they examine; the meanings unseen by those for whom the ground was mute soil.
- CROSSRAIL'S CANARY WHARF WORKSITE & TfL'S PALESTRA HOUSE
- Dates: Tuesday June 20th, 2017
- Meet: 9am, Crossrail Site, Canary Wharf
- Transport, Infrastructure, Crossrail, TfL, London.
Meeting at Canary Wharf, we will first visit the wharf’s Crossrail site, where engineer Adam Usher will guide us in exploring the strange and beautiful skeleton of London’s newest line.
In the afternoon, we will visit Transport for London’s Surface Transport and Traffic Operations Centre; housed in a unassuming office block in Southwark, this is TfL’s nerve centre. We’ll see both the control centre and the 3D visualising suite.
- Beckton Sewage Treatment Works & Crossness Pumping Station
- TV Museum and 575 Wandsworth Road